Dr. Walter Boynton: Admiral of the Chesapeake

October 12, 2015
Walter Boynton accepts the Admiral of the Chesapeake honor from Gov. Martin O'Malley.
Walter Boynton poses in the Chesapeake Biological Laboratory in 1970. He was hiking the Appalachian Trail in 1969 when he learned he got the internship. Photo by Tom Wisner

In 1969, fresh from his undergraduate degree from Springfield College in Massachusetts, a young man named Walt came to the Chesapeake Biological Laboratory (CBL) on Solomons Island as a summer intern.   

“I worked for Dave Hardy, a fish taxonomist, collecting journal articles for him.  This involved driving to the Museum of Natural History in DC three days a week and lugging books back to CBL, Xeroxing the proper articles, building the reference list and then driving back to DC and getting another bunch of books from the huge library at the museum. So, basically my first job at CBL was running the Xerox machine and driving to DC... not exactly what I had imagined myself doing.”

Becoming an Admiral of the Chesapeake might not have been quite what Dr. Walter Boynton, now a professor at the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science’s Chesapeake Biological Laboratory, imagined either. However, throughout his career Boynton has made such significant contributions to our fundamental understanding of the science and management of the Chesapeake Bay that on his last day in office Governor Martin O’Malley awarded Boynton this distinction.

“This is a thoroughly deserved award - Walter has been a leader in explaining the science of bay restoration to politicians throughout his career,” said Thomas Miller, Director of the Chesapeake Biological Laboratory, "His is a valued and respected voice."

The title of “Admiral of the Chesapeake” is awarded by Maryland’s governor to those who have demonstrated an extraordinary commitment to the conservation and restoration of the Chesapeake Bay, the surrounding landscape, and the life that inhabits them.  Boynton follows in the footsteps of former CBL director Gene Cronin receiving the title.  UMCES President Don Boesch was also named an “Admiral of the Chesapeake” by outgoing Governor O’Malley. The award recognizes the lifetime achievement and is the highest honor the governor can bestow on a person for their environmental contributions.

Donning his Dr. Gonzo garb, Walter Boynton is a proud member of The Gonzo Group, which started in 1986 when many of the would-be first members were reading Hunter S. Thompson's books.

Boynton certainly fits this description, though he is quick to emphasize the collaborative nature of his work,  “I have been part of teams all my career. I think tough and important environmental questions require a team... they are just too tough and complex to attack alone.”

Among many accomplishments, Boynton and his colleagues have:

  • Explored the location, timing and factors controlling the success (or failure) of striped bass recruitment in the Bay.  These studies helped identify factors causing the striped bass decline and supported the adoption of a fishing moratorium, a management practice that eventually led to a resurgence in the striped bass population.
  • Helped design, implement and institutionalize the comprehensive Chesapeake Bay monitoring Program. This program, established in 1983-84, is widely considered one of the best in the world and continues to this day.
  • Co-led a team of scientists who clarified the causes and ecological consequences of the huge seagrass decline in the Bay.
  • Played an important role in arguing for a dual nutrient control strategy for the Chesapeake system.  General scientific dogma used to say that only phosphorus was important in controlling eutrophication in estuaries.  Boynton and his colleagues Dr. Michael Kemp (Horn Point Laboratory) and Ms. Carolyn Keefe (CBL) helped to change that view by publishing perhaps the first paper showing that nitrogen plays a key role in the eutrophication of many estuarine ecosystems.  This paper is still highly cited today – a sign of its scientific importance.  Boynton’s work didn’t stop there though! Along with Chris D'Elia (CBL) and Jim Sanders (Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia) he participated in Federal and State court cases in support of managing both nitrogen and phosphorous.
  • Initiated routine measurements of key sediment processes throughout the Bay system as part of the Bay monitoring program. These measurements have proven to be key processes influencing Bay eutrophication. The data generated from this effort has been called "The Gold Standard" for judging water quality model performance.

With such significant scientific achievements and diligent work integrating research findings into management practices and policies related to the Bay, Dr. Walter Boynton’s appointment as an Admiral of the Chesapeake is certainly well deserved!